Guy Wollaert, chief technical officer at Coca-Cola Co., was in India last week to inaugurate the Coca-Cola system’s 58th bottling plant. Wollaert is responsible for overseeing global research and development, innovation, global sustainable procurement, scientific and regulatory affairs, among other functions, at the Atlanta-based maker of brands including Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta.

Wollaert spoke in an interview on a host of subjects including how consumer demand coupled with technology is leading to the creation of “personalized beverages", on water consumption by the company globally as well as in India, and ongoing research that could be critical to finding low-calorie natural sweeteners as consumers across markets switch to healthier alternatives. Edited excerpts:

How does a beverage company leverage technology to respond to consumer demand?

We look at technology in two domains. One, in the digital world that allows us to connect with consumers in novel ways. For instance, digital marketing through social media is a new reality enabled by digital technology.

Then there is technology in the physical space, which is all about the atoms, genomics, the living and inert world. We do (a) huge amount of work leveraging technology for packaging..., lightweighting our bottles. We also use polymer science to have bio-based packaging from plants rather than from fossil fuels.

And soon it’s not going to be far out when we will be talking about “personalized" beverages based on people’s personal genes. Because for $99 (devices/tests) you can know how your body is made up and with certain types of devices that track your physical movement, you can also track the level of hydration in your body, and replenish it accordingly and in a certain way.

What happens to markets like India where providing a cold beverage in rural areas is still a challenge? How does technology enable reach and distribution?

How is technology used to shape future consumer demand?

Nobody has a crystal ball, the cliché is, there is nothing more constant than change. What is new though is the speed and acceleration of that change.

What used to be planning for 10 years ahead is now reduced to three years and the magnitude of change is only getting bigger. There are 7.5 billion people who are almost interconnected and the next 2 billion consumers that will arise in the next 10 years will also be interconnected, so what that drives in terms of change is new consumer needs.

What we do is we reach out (we have our own consumer research team). We work closely with our partners, sometimes with industries we have never worked with and they have the same questions and they look for answers, but from a different lens. We partner with agriculture industries, the car industry and companies like 3M.

Because they all want to understand the consumer. For instance, the car industry also wants to know how digitally savvy they will be going forward, what devices will they use in their cars, and for us this will help drive consumer engagement.

How are you leveraging technology to make products for shifting consumer tastes, especially, in markets where sugar-based aerated beverages are seeing a decline?

This particular product (Coca-Cola) comes under scrutiny for unfair reasons. We actively participate in these debates trying to explain how many calories are there in the beverages. While it is a man-made product, it is based on natural ingredients and it gives you energy.

We are in the business of providing beverages that consumers like. In order to reduce the concern with calories and push further the drive towards naturalness, we are doing enormous amount of research to find great-tasting sweet molecules coming from plants that have no calories. Sugar is a great tasting sweetener which comes from plants, but that has calories. Stevia is another sweetener, it’s great tasting, but it does not work across all beverages. So that’s where the research is going on very aggressively in order to satisfy the concerns or perceptions that consumers have.

What is happening in markets like India, China and Latin America?

They are still asking for Coke. You know we have had Diet Coke in Mexico for many years now, it just doesn’t sell.

Beverage companies like Coca-Cola have been criticized for depleting the water table in India. Are you working on any technology to ensure you are “water-positive" ?

In India, we have created potential of 120%-plus in terms of whatever we consume we give that back.

For water, power and packaging material, we have to think in terms of a closed loop system. In water, we are already there in India and our effort is by 2020 to be globally water-positive, so everything we take we give back. Not directly through our own organization, but partnerships with various organizations, NGOs, etc. Frankly speaking, there is no other company that has made that commitment and has so many programmes (300) to live up to.

There has also been severe criticism around environment issues emerging from the use of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles?

There is the making and then there is what we do after the use. In terms of the making, we continue to work on lightweighting (reduction in the weight of the PET bottle). PET lightweighting in certain markets is about almost 50% now. We continue to work on keeping the weight out.

What is it that we use? This is where the plant bottle technology plays in, because if we can make PET using renewable resources rather than non-renewable...we are on our way on this one. If we get it done and we are in the process of getting it done 100%, then we will disrupt the industry and the way the whole PET industry works.

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